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Authors: Ruth Brandon

Ugly Beauty

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Ugly Beauty

Helena Rubinstein, L’Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good

Ruth Brandon


To my unretouched female friends


veryone has heard of Helena Rubinstein, international queen of cosmetics. Tiny, plump, spike-heeled, bowler hatted, and extravagantly jeweled, she was for many years one of the fixtures of the New York scene, scurrying between her vast apartment on Park Avenue and her salon on Fifth Avenue at Fifty-seventh Street, in one hand an enormous leather bag stuffed with cash, business notes, old tissues, and spare earrings, in the other a paper sack containing a copious lunch. Instantly recognizable to all from the photographs that adorned her advertisements, she was energy personified, at once comic and awe inspiring.

Few, by contrast, have heard of Eugène Schueller—though everyone knows L’Oréal, the firm he founded in Paris in 1909. Like Rubinstein he was born poor; like her, he rode to riches on the back of women’s compulsion to beautify themselves. Unlike her, however, neither his name nor his face were familiar to those who bought his hair dyes. Immured within his empire, traveling between factories in the Rolls that was his office on wheels, he shunned personal publicity. So removed was he from society, indeed, that when his wife died and he wished to remarry, the only woman he could find, though he was by then one of the richest men in France, was his daughter’s governess.

In 1988, Schueller’s business swallowed Rubinstein’s. In the normal way of things the takeover would have gone unnoticed except in the business press. But Rubinstein was a Jew, while Schueller, during the German Occupation, had been a leading fascist collaborator. And although they never met during their lifetimes, and both, by then, were long dead, the consequences of this potentially lethal opposition outlived them. The conjunction led to a series of scandals that not only threw a new and sinister light on L’Oréal but threatened the reputations of some of France’s most powerful men—up to and including its president himself.

It may seem odd—certainly unexpected—that a history of the beauty business should include an excursion into fascist politics. But cosmetics, unlike clothes, have always been a political hot potato. The stories of Helena Rubinstein and Eugène Schueller show us why this has been so—and continues to be so today.


Beauty Is Power!


er life,”
of Helena Rubinstein, “reads like a fairy
It was 1915: Madame (as she was
always known) had just opened her first New York salon. Dark-blue velvet covered
the walls of its main room, with rose-colored woodwork and sculptures by Elie
Nadelman from Madame’s own art collection. Each of the many other rooms had its
own decorative theme, from a Louis XVI salon to a Chinese fantasy in black and
gold and scarlet. The diminutive proprietor, high heels adding a few needed
inches to the mere four foot ten nature had allowed her, personally showed the
journalists around. However busy she might be, there was always time for
journalists. Madame, ever keen to pinch a penny where she could, knew no amount
of advertising could equal the boost afforded by a really long interview, with
photos, spread over several pages. And such a piece cost nothing at all.

The fairy story in question was a classic
rags-to-riches tale. Twelve years earlier, in 1903, Helena Rubinstein, a poor
emigrant from Poland, had opened her first beauty salon: a single room in
Melbourne, Australia, from which she sold pots of homemade face cream. So great
were her marketing skills, such the demand, and so enormous the markup, that
within two years she was rich. By 1915 she was a millionaire. She had dazzled
London and Paris, and was set to do the same in America.

Fairy stories, however, are more than just dazzling
social leaps. They are also dramatizations of our deepest dreams. And in this
sense, too, the metaphor was apposite, both for Rubinstein and for her chosen
industry. For cosmetics are all about dreams—specifically, the dream of an
ideal, time-defying physical self.

Generally speaking, the public acceptance of
women’s cosmetics has varied according to the social status of their sex. When
the Roman poet Ovid, in his
Ars amatoria
, advised
women to make sure their armpits didn’t smell, that their legs were shaved, to
keep their teeth white, to “acquire whiteness with a layer of powder,” to rouge
if they were naturally pale, “hide your natural cheeks with little patches,” and
“highlight your eyes with thinned ashes,” he was speaking to a society where
women had substantial social freedoms in all spheres other than politics.
Equally, the heroine of Pope’s
Rape of the Lock
with its famous dressing-table scene enumerating “Puffs, Powders, Patches,
Bibles, Billet-doux,” was free to take her place as an active player on the
social stage. But in societies where a wife’s functions are solely to produce
children and service her husband, cosmetics are taboo. Saint Paul inveighs
against them; the Talmud declares that “a beautiful wife—beautiful without
cosmetics—doubles the days of her husband and increases his mental

The nineteenth century, particularly in Britain,
was just such a society: in the words of social commentator William Rathbone
Greg, writing in 1862, a woman’s function in it was to “complete, sweeten, and
embellish the existence of others.”
But Helena
Rubinstein’s good fortune, after a century of repression during which no
respectable lady could allow herself even a touch of rouge, was to hit a moment
when women were poised to claim new freedoms. Her fairy-tale riches—rubies,
emeralds, pearls, and diamonds that would not have looked out of place in Ali
Baba’s cave, sculptures and paintings, apartments and houses in New York,
London, Paris, and the Riviera—reflected, in the reassuringly solid form Madame
always favored, this surge of empowerment. And since empowerment is the keynote,
too, of her own personal story, nothing could be more appropriate than that the
first woman tycoon—the first self-made female millionaire—should have amassed
her fortune through cosmetics.

Rubinstein’s life, as recounted by herself in two
memoirs, was a fairy tale in yet another sense: a desirable fiction that had
little to do with reality. “I have always felt a woman has the right to treat
the subject of her age with ambiguity until, perhaps, she passes into the realm
of over ninety,” she wrote—she herself being, by then, well into that realm. And
ambiguous she was, and remained, not just about her age but about every aspect
of her life. Although in the year of her death she finally acknowledged she was
born “in the early 1870s, on Christmas Day” (the year was in fact 1872), even
then she maintained the story—repeated so often she had perhaps come to believe
it—that the family had been well-off. They lived, she said, in a big house near
the Rynek, the ancient and splendid market square that is Krakow’s city center;
her father, a “wholesale food broker,” was an intellectual who collected books
and fine furniture; she herself had attended a gymnasium, she had for two years
been a medical student, and her sisters, too, had attended university.

In fact anyone could tell that Helena had been
poor, and hated it, from the extreme pleasure she took in being rich, piling up
the bright, shiny goodies with a compulsive delight that never dimmed and that
no one born rich could ever experience.

Similarly, it is clear she would have studied
medicine if she could. She always projected herself as a qualified scientific
professional, was constantly photographed in white lab coats amid test tubes and
Bunsen burners, emphasized her products’quasi-medical aspects. She became as
knowledgeable in her field as anyone alive. But that field was far from
scientific, and such knowledge as she possessed was laboriously gleaned over the
years, not formally acquired.

The Rubinsteins actually lived in Kazimierz,
Krakow’s Jewish ghetto, whose cramped streets, despite restoration as a tourist
attraction by the wealthy descendants of the poor Jews who once lived there,
still exude a dingy poverty. There, Naftali Herzl Rubinstein, Helena’s father,
was a kerosene dealer, occasionally selling eggs in the market. His eldest
daughter, Chaja, who would become known as Helena, attended a local Jewish

She was, like many firstborn children, ambitious
and high-achieving, and as the eldest of eight sisters acquired a precociously
adult habit of responsibility. When she recounts that her father, “since he had
no son . . . fell into the habit of talking over his plans and
projects with me,”
there is, for once, no
reason to doubt her. Many Jewish wives kept the family going by managing a
business as well as running a home and raising children, providing the material
necessities while their menfolk lived the life of the mind. Yiddish has a
special word—
—for this combination of
worldly competence and efficient domesticity, and this, clearly, was clever
Chaja’s destiny. For a poor girl from her orthodox background (her mother’s
father was a rabbi), medical school could never have been anything but a dream.
A girl’s career was marriage. Any activities preceding that were mere
time-marking. Afterwards, if her mother’s example was anything to go by, she
could expect more or less permanent pregnancy: a cramped and frantic life amid
an ever-increasing brood of babies.

It was enough to put any intelligent girl off
marriage and motherhood for life, and (judging by her later forays into those
territories) this was just the effect it had on Chaja. It can be no coincidence
that the only Krakow suitor she mentions with enthusiasm was not a possible
prospect, as he was not a Jew. Coming from a family like the Rubinsteins, to
marry “out” would have been equivalent to death. Had Chaja done so, they would
have cut off all contact with her and recited funeral prayers. Instead, her
father produced a suitable widower. Chaja refused him, there was an almighty
row, and she left the family home, never to return. She took refuge in Vienna
with an aunt, her mother’s sister. It was her life’s defining moment. From now
on she would be Helena, and her own woman.

Everything that happened to her subsequently,
everything she did, stemmed from this furious decision. It not only reflected
her attitude toward the prescribed female life of marriage and motherhood, but
would influence her view of what cosmetics were for and what they might do for
the wearer. No one was ever less interested in politics, whether of the
international or the gender variety, than Helena Rubinstein—on the contrary,
throughout her life, until it became impossible, she would shun, in every
possible way, the political arena. But this one act catapulted her into it from
the outset.

Her Vienna relations, the Splitters, were
prosperous furriers. (A photo exists, taken in Vienna, of Helena, aged
twenty-one, looking matronly in astrakhan.) Frau Splitter continued, on her
sister’s behalf, the hunt for a suitable husband. But Helena refused all comers.
And since Europe offered no obvious prospects, she decided to move on to a new
continent. Three of her mother’s Silberfeld brothers had settled in Australia.
John was a jeweler in Melbourne; Bernhard and Louis, along with Louis’s daughter
Eva, a cousin about Helena’s age who was married with two small children, kept a
general store and a grocery in Coleraine, a small town two hundred miles to the
west. The Coleraine family were in need of some extra help, and in the summer of
1896 Helena sailed from Genoa to join them.

Nothing in Europe could have prepared her for the
rude life of an Australian small town. She did not get on with her Uncle Louis,
who, she hinted in a memoir, made unwelcome advances, and her cousin Eva’s
marriage was disastrously unhappy. But, speaking no English, she could
communicate with no one else: she was stuck with them. In later years Helena
conducted her enormous correspondence (even when writing to her sisters) in
English, the language of her adult life. But until her arrival in Australia she
had spoken only Yiddish and Polish. Her spoken English always remained heavily
accented, resounding with Yiddishisms. She described herself as shy, a quality
hard to reconcile with her singularly uninhibited approach to business and her
constant entertaining. The difficulty, however, seems largely to have arisen
from her awkwardness in English. “She uttered in grunts,” fashion writer
Ernestine Carter recalled
—a strange mix of
English, French, Polish, and Yiddish that made her hard to follow and reluctant
to strike up conversation with strangers. Surrounding herself with family as she
famously did, calling in sister after sister, cousins, nephews, nieces, as the
business expanded, she carried her homeland with her, whether to New York,
Paris, or London: the archetypical rootless cosmopolitan.

She endured Coleraine for three years. Then, having
picked up enough English to operate independently, she decided it was time to
make her escape. Revisiting Australia in 1958, she refused to set foot in
Coleraine. “No! No! I don’t want to go back there,” she told Patrick O’Higgins,
the aide and companion of her later years. “For what? I was hungry, lonely, poor
in that awful place.”
But the Coleraine years
had not been wasted. She knew now that she wanted to start up a business, and
knew, too, what that business would be. One reason she was so convincing a
beauty counselor was that her exquisite complexion meant she did for a long time
look much younger than her real age. This was unusual in Australia, whose harsh
climate, with its strong winds and baking sun, is hard on the skin. Her
weather-beaten neighbors were admiring. What was her secret?

Helena claimed to have begun by selling her own
spare pots of face cream to the local ladies, telling them that she used a
formula discovered by some brothers called Lykusky “who had supplied us with it
for our personal use ever since I was a little girl.” When the supply was
exhausted, the legend went, she sent off to Poland to replenish her supplies.
This was, on every level, a fantasy. The voyage between Europe and Australia
took forty-five days—far too slow if orders had to be fulfilled—and it is
unlikely that her own initial supplies would have provided any surplus. But for
a natural entrepreneur like Helena, her neighbors’ interest was enough to plant
an idea—the idea she had been looking for ever since abandoning her father’s
house and the narrow life it offered. She would start a business selling face

This chance direction was Helena’s first great
stroke of luck. In all other areas of commerce, women were at a disadvantage,
but the beauty business was different. With odd exceptions, such as the French
court of Louis XV, where everyone, male and female, whitened their faces (as a
sign that they did not lead a lower-class outdoor life) and rouged their cheeks
and lips, the misogynistic Christian world had frowned upon cosmetics even where
(as in Restoration England) they were widely used. Even when everyone knew that
women did use rice powder, or face cream, or rouge, or whitened their skins with
the notorious and poisonous ceruse, made from white lead, these preparations
still had to be obtained discreetly and applied in strict privacy. Men averted
their eyes from such arrangements—and so failed to realize what was obvious to
Helena Rubinstein: that half the human race was interested in what she had to
sell. Indeed, long after Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, and Estée Lauder
had all made millions out of cosmetics, men remained noticeably absent from the
beauty business. There was Max Factor, but his main specialty was stage makeup,
although he did introduce a line of cosmetics to the public in 1920. Otherwise,
until the arrival of Charles Revson’s Revlon in the 1950s, women entrepreneurs
dominated the beauty scene. This was partly because, as
magazine observed in 1941, “Most men do not find an atmosphere
conducive to their best work in the tight little matriarchy of the beauty
—a business Madame described in
1920 as “working for women with women, and giving that which only women can
give—an intimate understanding of feminine needs and feminine desires.”
But the prospect of enormous profits is
generally enough to overcome any squeamishness or uncertainty. What gave women
the edge in the beauty industry was that, in the beginning at least, this was a
huge potential market
of which only women were

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